A Healthy Dose of Risk

I recently sat in a training meeting where we were discussing the role of risk in childhood.  It’s kept me thinking ever since.  Where do we draw the line between healthy risk and serious danger? 

I’ve often thought the line is where permanent damage can be done.  So, for example, I’ll stand back when my child risks a skinned knee during a small boulder climb, but I’m standing guard when they want to play in the front yard near a busy street. 

That sat alright with me for a while, but the more I think of it, we really don’t know what can cause permanent damage.  Tragic, fluke accidents happen every day.  A simple act of running and falling on cement can cause brain injury.  Common snacks can cause choking.  They’re the stories that keep parents up at night.  The unexpected dangers that we can’t seem to calculate.

We can’t always measure and manage risk using simple logic.  I think that’s part of what causes us to go overboard from time to time.  We just don’t want to take any chances.  But they’re all around us anyway.

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for a friend at New Latina, Is There Danger in Play or More in its Absence?  One of the most interesting pieces of information I found in the research for that article was the fact that children today are increasing in anxiety (as well as other forms of psychopathology) and it seems to coincide with a decrease in play, and specifically risky play.  According to psychologists, risky play essentially provides therapy for anxiety.  Therefore, removing risky play allows anxiety to grow.

In an effort to protect our children, we may be causing them harm.

So how do we find the balance?  How do we protect these precious children entrusted to our care, but still allow them the risk necessary to build competence, to grow in confidence, and to keep anxiety at bay?

While pondering this, you may want to check out this TED talk, Gever Tulley: 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do.  (He also has a book, 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

What do you think?

***And for more great play-based information, catch the newest issue of  Play Grow Learn  from Childhood 101′s creator, Christie Burnett.  It’s full of useful information and ideas for play.  I contributed an article to this issue myself, and I hope you find it as interesting to read as I felt it was to research and write.

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16 Comments

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16 Responses to A Healthy Dose of Risk

  1. This is a great topic, Amanda. I know scrapes and bruises aren’t fun, but I don’t try to protect my kids from them by stopping their play. Similarly, I’m always amazed at how many parents consider glass evil. We use glass 100% of the time, and even when something glass DOES break, it only occasionally hurts someone (a tiny piece in a foot, a scratch on their leg), and the benefits of trusting them with glass and teaching them to properly handle it outweigh those dangers in my book.

    That said, I think a lot about freak accidents too and how those things happen to unsuspecting families too.

    But here’s the thing….I think they happen to families who are trying to eliminate risk as often as those who allow risk, and I think my kids are better off having explored and tested boundaries and tried new things. I hope so, at least!

    • Good point, Mandi. True risk can often be calculated and appropriately safe-guarded. Freak accidents happen to the careful and overly-risky alike. Maybe if we engaged in some of that healthy risky play with our kids, we adults would have a little less anxiety about it all!

      I’ve had the same response from people with using glass with kids or letting them use mild cutting instruments like butter-knives, or dull pizza cutters. I figure they’ll never learn how to take appropriate care with things, if we never teach them and give appropriate practice. I think it’s more risky to avoid some of these things than it is to teach them appropriate use.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Annette

    I love this TED talk. We gave our son a pocket knife when he turned 7. He loves it. We’ve also let him drive (in dads lap) and help build fires in the winter. I think it teaches healthy limits. We’ve had bumps and bruises and one cat scan (yikes) but I still don’t think hovering is healthy for children.

    • Thanks, Annette. Your comment reminded me of when my husband was scoutmaster and took a group of 12-14 year-olds to camp. Pocket knives were on their list of supplies. He said, however, that it was obvious most of them had never used one before, as he was surprised to find many of them with deep cuts within an hour or so of arriving. I think sometimes we decide children are “old enough” or “not old enough” when really it’s more about helping them understand how to recognize and respect limits. If they’re old enough to understand and to follow guidance at 7 (and given that guidance and practice) they’re better of with a pocket knife than a teenager who’s simply “old enough for a pocket knife” but doesn’t have a clue how to use it. We can usually do a better job of protecting them by teaching them rather than removing the risk.

  3. Marisa @ Deliberate Parenting

    I’ve been thinking about this myself. As our infant becomes more mobile and is trying to move about the house on her own, she is faced with obstacles. I think that this is the training ground, so to speak, for me to gauge my responses so that I excude encouragement and confidence as she tries new things, even though she may take a small tumble. (if you are interested – Her risk-taking http://www.deliberateparenting.net/2012/02/29/whenshould-we-prevent-risk-taking-in-infants/ )

    I wonder how much more challenging this may become as my daughters take what may feel like increasingly bigger risks.

    • Marisa, I loved your post! Thanks for sharing it! I have taken a similar approach as my boys’ learned to navigate the stairs. I would sit a little way below them to keep them from falling all the way down the flight of stairs. But if they stumbled roughly down a step or two, I reasoned that the experience helped them to understand cause and effect, recognize balance in their own bodies, and figure out how to control their movement and make the descent safely. I figured if I never let them experience those small “controlled” falls, they wouldn’t learn to prevent them when I wasn’t an arm’s reach away. I suppose we could transfer that philosophy to a lot of other situations. If we let them take risks and recognize that they can indeed fail, and let them learn to succeed, they better learn to protect themselves when the stakes get higher.

  4. Kim

    As an American who has immigrated to New Zealand, I’ve noticed a big cultural difference in regards to play. In the US if it if POSSIBLE to get hurt, parents say no, in New Zealand it is if it is PROBABLE. The kids climb trees and cliff tops as high as they feel safe. They fo as fast as they can, they walk to school barefoot. Tourist often get hurt in NZ. They seem to expect railings or signs to tell them how close is to close to the edge of every cliff. It was hard for me to adjust, but in ten years, I have never seen any child get seriously hurt, and the young adults are resilient and sensible…

    • So interesting! I do think we do a disservice to children when we continually try to remove all risk, rather than teaching them to recognize it and adapt. Thanks for sharing your observations!

  5. I agree with erring on the side of risk, especially it it’s one the kids can control. So you are right about being vigilant in the street because the child could easily be blind-sided by a fast car and the result could be fatal, but things like climbing are very low risk because children are almost indestructible compared to adults. There might be crying, but I call that learning (I’m a dad :) I am not fearful of knives either, and actually my kids can use knives on their own.

    Things I am leery about are stairs (especially ones that the kid didn’t climb themselves), animals large enough to hurt a child, poison, violent machines that the kid could start by themselves, other irresponsible people holding dangerous toys like bb guns or big rocks or driving cars fast in the street.

    Things I let my kids use are knives, the stove (as long as are part of the whole process), sticks, rocks, tools, construction stuff, wooden swords, etc.

    If you are borderline concerned then you can easily just teach the child. great post!

  6. Hi, I came across your post via a Facebook link – loved it – risk is something I think a lot about at the moment as my two year old channels Spiderman crossed with Tarzan.

    I’m the same, scraped knees I don’t worry about, real danger (we live on a busy road) I’m vigilant about. I think risk (and small hurts) are an important way to learn risk management and how to do things safely. Like you and other commenters have said, I really can’t imagine how a child would learn to do things safely otherwise? And when I think back to what we were allowed to get up to as kids… :)

    I don’t worry too much about freak accidents, they are just that – a freak thing you can’t control, so no point worrying about it. Anyone, young or old, could choke on food, for instance. And I’ve found that accidents can can happen with the most careful and the most carefree of parents. I recently took a first aid course to help me confidently (I hope) deal with those things if they ever occur (fingers crossed they don’t). And we encourage no running around while eating LOL.

    It’s an interesting comment about NZ. As an Australian I often get a similar impression when reading blogs from different parts of the world.

  7. Erin

    As a child care teacher, this is an area that is often a challenge for me. Things I would let my own child do, I’m hesitant to let someone elses child try, because they may not have the same acceptance of risk and minor bumps and bruises as I do. Though I have explained to some of the parents (knowing which ones would understand what I mean and who have trust in my love for their children) that I don’t worry if children get hurt, I worry about them getting injured. Often that helps a parent understand why I may let their infant have a superised tumble off a step or climbing structure, or will let their toddler climb a tree if a teacher is close.

  8. Raegan

    As a kid who grew up in the country and had hour upon hour of uninterrupted, unsupervised, free-range play, it breaks my heart at how small the lives of many of today’s children of helicopter parents are allowed to live. Without testing their limits, they can never know how “big” their lives can really be!

    Great post and links–thanks!

  9. Kris

    This is an area that many struggle with and others (in my experience) are really judgmental about. I love that we have all sorts of different people in the world – some cautious, some freewheeling. I think it makes society a balanced and infinitely more interesting place to be.

    I do think it helps to know what children are developmentally capable of handling at certain ages. And I don’t mean physically. My two kids are still pre-logical and lack impulse control. They are not likely to comprehend the consequences of their actions yet. So if they take a risk and suffer a consequence, that won’t necessarily teach them to modify their behavior next time. As they age and their little brains grow, risk will become a more valuable teaching / learning tool for them.

  10. Great article. My hubby and I talk all the time about how high a tree they can climb or deep into the water. I love letting them play and do my best to make sure they understand the safety rules on why they can and cannot do things

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  12. I have just read an article that gives some really good cross-cultural perspective to letting children do dangerous things. What we think is dangerous might not be though of that way elsewhere in the world. And children are more capable than we give them credit for. In Peru children as young as two can do things like heat food over and open flame and use machetes. I’ve seen this traveling in China too. You can read more here: http://www.gracemillsaps.com/2012/07/26/could-american-children-be-more-capable-and-responsible/

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